By Sarah Stern
The first substantial conversation that I had with someone from my alma-mater, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, about my participation in the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative (BPYI), happened in Amsterdam Falafel, in Adams Morgan. It was Thanksgiving, and after heaping hummus on to our meals, and reminiscing about our Israel trip the past semester, I couldn’t help but tell him that I was going back to the region over the summer, but this time, I was going to the West Bank.
I explained the project; a delegation of Bard students travels to my friends’ village in Mas-ha, right over the green line, split by the security barrier, and we run an intellectual summer camp for Palestinian teenagers. We employ the same educational methods used in my three-week orientation to college, a Bard staple called “Language and Thinking.” We free-write (oh, do we free write…), and we talk. We talk a lot. We encourage creative expression, rather than destructive expression, and on the side, we do community service, and take them on excursions into Israel to places like Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea, that are normally very hard to arrange.
Sounds good, right? Nonetheless, the moment you say the word, “Palestinian,” many of my Jewish friends’ eyes glaze over. You explain it, and mention that their trip to Yad Vashem was the first organized Palestinian educational trip ever to visit the Israeli Holocaust Museum, and was written up in Ha’aretz, and they get more enthused. To the feminists, the fact that I am going to be a part of the first women’s camp, also stirs up some excitement.
What I have found is very similar to the point that Daniel Levy, Israeli Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, made at a conference at the Brookings Institute titled “One Year After Gaza, Securing the Future for Young Palestinians,” on January 15th. He eloquently summed up a phenomenon I have witnessed numerous times in my thirteen years at Jewish day schools and three months in Israel, “For the vast majority of the population, see no Palestinian, hear no Palestinian, think no Palestinian is the best way to go about daily life. By the way, there’s a human, understandable element to that. It’s not that the information is not accessible, it’s people would rather not access it.”
He’s right; it’s political, it’s hard, and for some, it’s moot. My Jewish friends would say that the mainstream media has an anti-Israel bent, and my Bard friends would probably say it isn’t hard enough on Israel. In my high school Modern Israel class (which was not a requirement until Junior Year, before which, we would celebrate Israel’s triumphs each year on Yom Ha’azma’ut without any knowledge that Palestinians call the same day, the Nachbah, or the catastrophe), I was taught to question the bias of news sources, and in social action minyan under my predecessor (I took over leadership my Junior year with a friend), I was taught to be wary of the “anti-Israel” bent on campus. And yes, I have seen that at Bard. They have brought some extremist speakers such as Norman Finklestein, and when they justify Hamas launching rockets into Sderot, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow.
However, I never quite accepted that all criticism of Israel is “anti-Israel” and that most issues surrounding it, including the Palestinians, are “different.” This is an idea that is particularly prevalent in America. In Moment‘s profile about Jon Stewart (November/December 2008) issue, Stewart was quoted from his show as saying, “Oh! I forgot! You can’t say anything remotely critical of Israel and still get elected president! Which is funny, because you know where you can criticize Israel? Israel!”
Which is partly why I, more critical of Israel than any of my Jewish friends, was shocked when I blurted out I wanted to study abroad there again, when meeting with my college advisor at Bard. As much as Israel is a rough place (and those who went on the JDS Senior Israel trip with me can attest that it wasn’t all smooth sailing for me), I love the absurdity and vibrancy of the community; it is such a smattering of conflicting political and religious views that are forced, for a lack of a better term, to keep it real. The sticker song sung by Hadag Nachash perfectly explains this phenomenon by juxtaposing slogans of conflicting bumper stickers that ride around on Israeli cars. Perhaps I am drawn to dysfunctional communities; it’s probably why I have a love-hate relationship with both Israel and Bard….
(Check back tomorrow for part 2!)
Sarah Stern is a freshman at Bard College as a prospective Studio Arts Major with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies, and a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School alumnus. On a rainy Sunday morning, she can be found chopping Israeli salad in the communal Cruger Hall kitchen.